Algeria's Post-Colonial Civil War

views updated

Algeria's Post-Colonial Civil War

The Conflict

Since the early 1990s Algeria has been involved in a harsh civil war, characterized by, among other things, the brutalization of its civilians.


• The Islamic Salvation Front was the likely winner in an election; it was subsequently cancelled by the military government, causing disillusionment with the political system.


• The Islamic Salvation Front has the support of a significant portion of the population. The Front advocates the establishment of Islamic law, shari'a.


• The drop in oil prices in the 1980s increased the migration of people from rural areas to the city and increased poverty and social dislocation, adding to discontent and furthering violence.

Since the early 1990s Algeria has gained increased notoriety in the Western media because of a violent civil conflict ostensibly between supporters of the government and organizations who wish to establish an Islamic state. This conflict has become well known for its bloody massacres of villages and, in particular, its harsh treatment of women. Rebel groups battle paramilitary organizations and the government, and civilians are often among the first victims.

Beginning in 1991 Algeria entered a prolonged period of bloodshed and social instability, stemming from national elections. The democratic elections were voided by the military when it became apparent that an Islamic political movement would emerge the winner. This was a major turning point for Algeria, which until this time had enjoyed a reputation as one of the Arab and African worlds' most progressive and forward-thinking states.

Historical Background

Algeria is located in the northwestern portion of Africa in the region known as the Maghrib. The word Maghrib is a form of the Arabic word gharb, which means west. This is a reference to the fact that the region of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco is traditionally the western-most limit of the Islamic world. As part of the Mediterranean world Algeria has been part of major cultural movements for over three thousand years. Initially Algeria was part of the hinterland of the Carthaginian Empire (from about 800 b. c.) and was later incorporated into the Roman Empire when Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 b. c.

The advance of the Arabs and the introduction of Islam around the year 650 a. d., however, have had a longer lasting impact on the area than any earlier outside influence. Although Algeria eventually became a nation in which the majority of people identify themselves as Arabs, a significant minority—especially in mountainous regions—still maintain the older Berber language and culture. Contemporary Algeria, along with Morocco, is distinguished from other states in North Africa by the retention of a prominent Berber community.

By 711 Islamic identity had grown strong enough that local North Africans or Berbers, under the leadership of Tariq ibn Ziyad, led an invasion into the Iberian peninsula of Europe. The invasion resulted in modern-day Spain and Portugal being part of the Islamic world until 1492.

By 1518, after the decline of various local political governments, Algeria came under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire, an Islamic empire based in Turkey, ruled a large portion of southeastern Europe and the Middle East from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. After the death of the Sultan Suleiman, the leader of the Ottomans in 1566, the Ottoman Empire entered a long period of decline. As the empire declined, coastal rulers of what is now Algeria began to reassert its independence. In Western history these rulers are often known by the title of "Barbary Pirates" because of their habit of demanding tribute from ships that passed through their waters. Despite their description as pirates, the Algerians were respected by Western powers, and by the early nineteenth century the West and Algeria had signed a series of treaties, including one with the United States in 1815.

Colonization by France

By 1830, however, Algeria lost its political independence to its Mediterranean neighbor, France. There were many reasons behind the French conquest of Algeria. The France of Charles X and later Louis Phillippe was looking for a way to reclaim the greatness that France once held during the Napoleonic era of the 1800s, which included drastically expanding the country's empire. The invasion of Algeria also reflected a growing arrogance on the part of Europe toward the people of Africa and Asia stemming from Europe's readily apparent military superiority. The immediate cause for the invasion was a dispute between the governments of Algiers, capital of Algeria, and Paris, capital of France, over money the French owed for grain shipments. The French accused the Algerians of insulting them and France invaded the country in 1830. The initial French invasion had only limited success because of the spirited resistance of the Algerian people, led by the Berber Abdel Kader. However, by 1848, the French had subdued the country sufficiently to begin a process of colonization that would eventually result in one million Europeans living in Algeria by 1960.

Algeria was formally incorporated as a department, or province, of France in 1848. By the early twentieth century Algeria, like other colonial countries, had developed a cadre of Western-educated intellectuals who began to develop the argument for Algerian independence or, at least, enhanced rights for indigenous Algerians within the French system. Although the French responded by increasing the number of Algerians who could become citizens, the number was too small to significantly change the political dynamics of the colonial society.

After World War II Algerian nationalists began to agitate for independence, but they were violently repressed. The result was that by 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN) of Algeria embarked on a full-scale war against France. This became the first successful indigenous war against colonial rule in Africa, and it became a benchmark in the struggle for political independence in the Third World. Despite the loss of two hundred fifty thousand people in the protracted struggle, Algeria emerged from the conflict as one of the undisputed leaders in the Pan-African, Pan-Arab, and non-aligned movements. The Pan-African movement included all of Africa; the Pan-Arab movement included all Arab states. The non-aligned movement included all states that were officially not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union or other communist countries.

Independence and Authoritarianism

After gaining independence Algeria's political development moved down a path similar to that of many other African and Arab nations of that period. Starting with the first independent leader, Ben Bella, Algeria was led by a series of authoritarian governments with a firm foundation in the country's military establishment. This type of leadership resulted in an ineffective political culture. In international matters Algeria was a major supporter of progressive political efforts from the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, to African American activists like the Black Panthers in the United States, to international Marxists like Che Guevara. In internal matters the government found itself becoming increasingly authoritarian. Algeria failed to create political structures allowing its people an effective voice in government and it also failed explain its policies in a way that made common people feel that they had a stake in the continued development of the country.

In addition to an ineffective and authoritarian political culture, Algeria also suffered from problems that virtually all other countries in the developing world faced: namely, a fast growing population that was leaving the countryside and moving to the cities, only to find itself unemployed or underemployed. In this kind of climate it is not surprising that the government would eventually exhaust its political capital—the people's respect and goodwill—as a revolutionary force, and that people would begin to look to other authorities and organizations to address their problems.

By the early 1980s a number of problems had developed for the Algerian government. First, oil prices had declined. This had a huge impact on Algeria because petroleum products were and are its major source of revenue. The decreasing availability of money from oil meant that the government was less able than ever to handle the continuing influx of rural people into the cities. Of equal importance were events in the heartland of the Islamic world. Specifically, in 1979, Iran, under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini, proved that a revolution could be achieved without the use of Western-based ideology. Whereas the Algerian revolution had been intellectually shaped by Western-educated leaders and had even been supported enthusiastically by Western radical intellectuals, the movement of Khomeini was based solidly on the Shi'a Islamic traditions of Iran. The success of the Iranian revolution sent a clear signal to millions of Muslims that their own religious tradition could provide the spark for revolution as mighty as any other belief system.

Denial of Victory

By the late 1980s demonstrations were being held in Algeria to demand the end of one party government and the end of the National Liberation Front's (FLN) domination. By 1991 Algerian president Chadli Benjedid agreed to these demands and allowed free elections to take place. Once the first round of elections occurred, it soon became clear that the most popular party was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The FIS believed in the foundation of a traditional Islamic state that would be ruled under the shari'a or traditional law of Islam. The FLN and the Algerian middle class, which were profoundly secular and Western-influenced, found the idea of an Islamic state unacceptable and cancelled the second round of elections rather than see the FIS win.

The denial of the FIS's legitimate victory is at the heart of the current conflict in Algeria. The worst period of fighting was between 1992 and 1997. During this time the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed division of the FIS, was formed and engaged in battle with the government. In addition to the AIS, another organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), also came into being. The war in Algeria developed into a protracted and bloody conflict in which common people found themselves at the mercy of both the insurgents, or rebels, and the government.

During the period of the heaviest fighting, people in isolated villages were often approached by Islamic insurgents and asked to pay a tax to the rebels. If they could not or would not, the people might then find themselves being attacked. Often entire families were killed. One of the most unpleasant aspects of the Algerian conflict has been the degree to which violence against women has been used as a tactic of the combatants. In particular, insurgents have been accused of kidnapping and raping women and using them as sex slaves. This is an especially devastating fate for a woman in a rural, conservative community. In many traditional communities, a woman having sex outside of marriage, whether or not the sex is voluntary, is seen as having shamed her family and she can be subject to ostracism or, in some cases, death. In addition to sexual violence against women, insurgents have been known to threaten female celebrities in order to dissuade them from public life. For instance, female singers were threatened with death if they performed, and female athletes were threatened with death if they appeared in public in athletic shorts, an action that, under shari'a, would be a violation of the law.

In this kind of environment it is not surprising that people began to look toward vigilantism for protection. Vigilantism is when citizens take up arms to capture and punish suspected criminals, often without proper adherence to the law. Groups known as les patriotes, the patriots, began to form in order to protect their villages against those who were suspected of complicity with Islamic rebels. Les patriotes gained the de facto support of the government and combined resources to fight against the rebels.

In 1994 General Lamine Zeroual became the new president of Algeria, and he began to engage the FIS in discussions. Although the talks did yield some results, the emergence of the GIA as an even more determined foe seemed to mitigate the progress that Zeroual achieved. Eventually, the government's use of harsh measures against the insurgents began to bear some results. By 1997 the AIS had declared a cease-fire, which it has since maintained. The GIA also agreed to the cease-fire, but has instead concentrated its forces more effectively.

Recent History and the Future

In April of 1999 Abdelazziz Bouteflika was elected president of Algeria. Although many political activists and observers called the elections unfair, Bouteflika's experience as a foreign minister and his charisma appealed to a wide number of people. With the rise of President Bouteflika, the violence in Algeria has declined significantly. By June 7, 1999, the leader of the AIS, Madani Medrag, publicly renounced violence and urged his followers to lay down their weapons. Bouteflika has responded by developing an amnesty program for those insurgents who did not engage in the worst acts of violence, such as rape and murder.

Additionally, it appears that the stage may be set in Algeria for an official loyal Islamic opposition party to be formed, perhaps based somewhat on the model of similar parties in Turkey. The loyal opposition is a party that recognizes the right of the government to exist, though it disagrees with its policies. The loyal opposition uses the political system—not violence—to try to gain control of the government. President Bouteflika released over twenty-three hundred Islamic activists from prison in July 1999, and stated that those who were not implicated in the violence will be allowed to establish political organizations.

Violence has clearly declined in Algeria but it is important to note that many of the underlying sources of friction in the society remain. Algeria in the late twentieth century had an unemployment rate of sixty percent, and many young men have simply fallen out of or have never joined the formal economy. One indicator of fundamental dissatisfaction has been a sharp increase in the number of suicides reported in the late 1990s. Despite these problems, it appears that armed resistance to the government is no longer an attractive alternative for many people. The violence may finally be coming to an end.


"Abdel Azziz Bouteflika a President-Elect for Algeria." (17 April 1999).

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. News in Review. March, 1998.

Malley, Robert. The Call From Algeria. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996.

"Most Violent Crime in Algeria Since Bouteflika's Elections." (16 August 1999).

Quandt, William B. Between Ballots & Bullets. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Willis, Michael. The Islamist Challenge in Algeria. Ithaca, N.Y.: Berkshire UK, 1996.

Anthony Q.Cheeseboro


650 Islam is introduced to Algeria.

711 Algeria invades Spain and Portugal (Spain and Portugal remain part of the Islamic world until 1492).

1518 Algeria is ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

1930 Algeria loses its independence and becomes a French colony, and later a department of France.

1954 The National Liberation Front (FLN) fights against France.

1991 The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) wins a free election. The FLN, dissatisfied with the results, cancels the election.

1992-97 Civil war. The Islamic Salvation Arms (AIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) are formed.

1994 Algerian president General Lamine Zeroual begins discussions with the FIS.

1997 The AIS declares a cease-fire.

1999 Adbel Azziz Bouteflika is elected president. The AIS renounces violence.

Ahmed Ben Bella

1918- Algeria's first president was born in Marnia, Algeria, on approximately December 25, 1918. Ben Bella grew up speaking French and Arabic, and worked for his father's farm and business while attending the local French school. When he moved to Tlemcen to continue his education, he was subjected to racial discrimination by the French colonialists who controlled the government and the school. Bella soon joined the Algerian Nationalist Movement.

Ben Bella was conscripted into the French Army in 1937, and served with distinction during World War II. On his return to Marnia, he learned that the French had confiscated his farm. After a sham election in 1948, he lost hope in achieving independence democratically. He co-founded the Organisation Speciale, later the National Liberation Front (FLN), to combat the French militarily. In 1950 Bella was imprisoned, but was able to escape to Egypt.

In 1956, as insurrection divided Algeria, he was arrested by the French military while negotiating peace terms with the French premier. Released upon Algerian independence in 1962, Bella ran the socialist Bureau Politique and was elected president of the Algerian republic in 1963. He was deposed by the head of the army in a 1965 coup and imprisoned until 1980. Bella spent ten years in exile, but was allowed to return to Algeria in 1990.

Abdelaziz Bouteflicka

1937- Abdelaziz Bouteflicka was elected president of Algeria in April 1999. He won the popular vote, but under Algerian law the military is allowed to vote early. When these early results showed Bouteflicka leading, the other candidates dropped out of the popular election.

Bouteflicka was born in 1937, and gained prominence as a fighter in the National Liberation Front (FLN) against the French. He served in Algeria's first government cabinet as minister of sports, and was promoted after the 1963 coup. During his tenure as Algeria's foreign minister from 1965-78, he also served as a spokesperson for non-aligned nations groups, and, in 1974, as president of the twenty-ninth United Nation's General Assembly. In 1978, after being demoted by the military, Bouteflicka lived mostly in France. He continued to live in France even after being given a seat on the FLN's central committee in 1989.

Bouteflicka's 1999 presidential campaign focused on solutions to the on-going insurrection. In July 1999 he launched a general amnesty for members of militant Islamic militias, collectively called the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Through the amnesty agreement President Bouteflicka invited all fighting units to disband, in exchange for a full pardon, by a deadline of January 13, 2000.